Much Ado About Nothing


Introduction

This comedy was probably first performed around 1598-1599, and it was also performed at court in the winter of 1612-1613 as part of the festivities celebrating the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and the Elector of Palatine. A quarto version was printed in 1600, and the play was included in the First Folio (1623). (See Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor in The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (2nd edition, 2005).)

The play is set in Italy, in Messina in Sicily, which was then ruled by the Spanish. Returning victorious from war, the Prince of Aragon and his Italian entourage stop at the house of Leonato, the governor of Messina. One of the nobles, Claudio, falls in love with Hero, Leonato’s daughter, while another, Benedick, exchanges verbal barbs with Beatrice, Leonato’s fiesty niece. The Prince helps Claudio woo Hero, and the two are engaged to be married. To pass the time before the wedding, the Prince and the others take on the challenge of getting Beatrice and Benedick together. However, the Prince’s malevolent brother, Don John, tricks Claudio and the Prince into believing that Hero has been unfaithful, and Claudio breaks off the engagement. The innocent Hero is devastated, but Beatrice and Benedick join forces to aid and defend the maligned bride. Eventually all is put to right and the play ends with everyone heading to a double wedding.


Staged Dances and Textual References to Dance

Text excerpts and their act, scene, and line numbers follow Folger Digital Texts unless otherwise noted.

Act I, scene 2, lines 1-16

LEONATO How now, brother, where is my cousin, your
son? Hath he provided this music?
LEONATO’S BROTHER He is very busy about it. But,
brother, I can tell you strange news that you yet
dreamt not of.
LEONATO Are they good?
LEONATO’S BROTHER As the events stamps them, but
they have a good cover; they show well outward.
The Prince and Count Claudio, walking in a thick-pleached
alley in mine orchard, were thus much
overheard by a man of mine: the Prince discovered
to Claudio that he loved my niece your daughter and
meant to acknowledge it this night in a dance, and if
he found her accordant, he meant to take the
present time by the top and instantly break with you
of it.

Act II, scene 1, lines 68-152

BEATRICE The fault will be in the music, cousin, if you
be not wooed in good time. If the Prince be too
important, tell him there is measure in everything,
and so dance out the answer. For hear me, Hero,
wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a
measure, and a cinquepace. The first suit is hot and
hasty like a Scotch jig, and full as fantastical; the
wedding, mannerly modest as a measure, full of
state and ancientry; and then comes repentance,
and with his bad legs falls into the cinquepace faster
and faster till he sink into his grave.
LEONATO Cousin, you apprehend passing shrewdly.
BEATRICE I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church
by daylight.
LEONATO The revelers are entering, brother. Make
good room.

Enter, [with a Drum,] Prince Pedro, Claudio, and
Benedick, [Signior Antonio,] and Balthasar, [all in
masks, with Borachio and Don] John.

PRINCE, [to Hero] Lady, will you walk a bout with your
friend?
HERO So you walk softly, and look sweetly, and say
nothing, I am yours for the walk, and especially
when I walk away.
PRINCE With me in your company?
HERO I may say so when I please.
PRINCE And when please you to say so?
HERO When I like your favor, for God defend the lute
should be like the case.
PRINCE My visor is Philemon’s roof; within the house
is Jove.
HERO Why, then, your visor should be thatched.
PRINCE Speak low if you speak love.

BENEDICK, [to Margaret] Well, I would you did like me.
MARGARET So would not I for your own sake, for I have
many ill qualities.
BENEDICK Which is one?
MARGARET I say my prayers aloud.
BENEDICK I love you the better; the hearers may cry
“Amen.”
MARGARET God match me with a good dancer.
[They separate; Benedick moves aside; Balthasar moves forward.]
BALTHASAR Amen.
MARGARET And God keep him out of my sight when the
dance is done. Answer, clerk.
BALTHASAR No more words. The clerk is answered.
[They separate; Benedick moves aside; Balthasar moves forward.]
BALTHASAR Amen.
MARGARET And God keep him out of my sight when the
dance is done. Answer, clerk.
BALTHASAR No more words. The clerk is answered.

URSULA I know you well enough. You are Signior
Antonio.
ANTONIO At a word, I am not.
URSULA I know you by the waggling of your head.
ANTONIO To tell you true, I counterfeit him.
URSULA You could never do him so ill-well unless you
were the very man. Here’s his dry hand up and
down. You are he, you are he.
ANTONIO At a word, I am not.
URSULA Come, come, do you think I do not know you
by your excellent wit? Can virtue hide itself? Go to,
mum, you are he. Graces will appear, and there’s an
end.

BEATRICE Will you not tell me who told you so?
BENEDICK No, you shall pardon me.
BEATRICE Nor will you not tell me who you are?
BENEDICK Not now.
BEATRICE That I was disdainful, and that I had my
good wit out of The Hundred Merry Tales! Well, this
was Signior Benedick that said so.
BENEDICK What’s he?
BEATRICE I am sure you know him well enough.
BENEDICK Not I, believe me.
BEATRICE Did he never make you laugh?
BENEDICK I pray you, what is he?
BEATRICE Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull
fool; only his gift is in devising impossible slanders.
None but libertines delight in him, and the commendation
is not in his wit but in his villainy, for he
both pleases men and angers them, and then they
laugh at him and beat him. I am sure he is in the
fleet. I would he had boarded me.
BENEDICK When I know the gentleman, I’ll tell him
what you say.
BEATRICE Do, do. He’ll but break a comparison or two
on me, which peradventure not marked or not
laughed at strikes him into melancholy, and then
there’s a partridge wing saved, for the fool will eat
no supper that night. We must
follow the leaders.
BENEDICK In every good thing.
BEATRICE Nay, if they lead to any ill, I will leave them
at the next turning.

Dance. [Then exit all except Don John, Borachio, and Claudio.]

Act II, scene 1, lines 233-251

PRINCE The Lady Beatrice hath a quarrel to you. The
gentleman that danced with her told her she is
much wronged by you.
BENEDICK O, she misused me past the endurance of a
block! An oak but with one green leaf on it would
have answered her. My very visor began to assume
life and scold with her. She told me, not thinking I
had been myself, that I was the Prince’s jester, that I
was duller than a great thaw, huddling jest upon jest
with such impossible conveyance upon me that I
stood like a man at a mark with a whole army
shooting at me. She speaks poniards, and every
word stabs. If her breath were as terrible as her
terminations, there were no living near her; she
would infect to the North Star. I would not marry
her though she were endowed with all that Adam
had left him before he transgressed. She would have
made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft
his club to make the fire, too. Come, talk not of her.

Act II, scene 1, lines 324-329

PRINCE Your silence most offends me, and to be merry
best becomes you, for out o’ question you were
born in a merry hour.
BEATRICE No, sure, my lord, my mother cried, but then
there was a star danced, and under that was I
born.

Act III, scene 4, lines 41-49

HERO Why, how now? Do you speak in the sick tune?
BEATRICE I am out of all other tune, methinks.
MARGARET Clap ’s into “Light o’ love.” That goes
without a burden. Do you sing it, and I’ll dance it.
BEATRICE You light o’ love with your heels! Then, if
your husband have stables enough, you’ll see he
shall lack no barns.
MARGARET O, illegitimate construction! I scorn that
with my heels.

Act V, scene 4, lines 121-133

BENEDICK Come, come, we are friends. Let’s have a
dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our
own hearts and our wives’ heels.
LEONATO We’ll have dancing afterward.
BENEDICK First, of my word! Therefore play, music.—
Prince, thou art sad. Get thee a wife, get thee a wife.
There is no staff more reverend than one tipped
with horn.
Enter Messenger.
MESSENGER, [to Prince] My lord, your brother John is ta’en in flight,
And brought with armed men back to Messina.
BENEDICK, [to Prince] Think not on him till tomorrow.
I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him.—Strike
up, pipers!

[Music plays.] Dance. [Exit.]

 


Dance References in Much Ado About Nothing

Dancing is featured prominently throughout the play. There are several staged dances, which frame the courtship of the two couples. There is a masked entry and a dance in Act II, and the play ends with a dance in Act V. There are also numerous references to dancing within the text, including Beatrice’s dance-filled speech in the opening of Act II. In this speech, Beatrice refers to dance both directly and metaphorically in order to critique courtship and marriage. The overall meaning is clear—lovers initially are passionate, marriage makes love respectable but boring, and at the end one is left with nothing but regrets—in other words, it should not be surprising that Beatrice has no interest in it. However, since Shakespeare rarely specifies what dance types he has in mind, it is noteworthy that in this particular speech he mentions three specific dance types: the jig, the measures, and the cinquepace.

The dance party in Act II begins with the entry of “revellers”—the Prince, Claudio and Benedick, and Don John and his followers—all wearing masks. (The term “ball” did not come into English usage until c.1620.) Masks were commonly worn for dance parties in this time period, and were, by definition, requisite for masked entries and masquerades, which feature in many of Shakespeare’s dance scenes. The custom was to preserve the fiction that the masked visitors were unexpected, mysterious strangers, even when everything was prearranged. The masked visitors would process into the hall to music, bow or salute the host, and then either perform a choreographed dance or proceed directly to the revels, where they invited the ladies at the party to join them in social dancing. The women might be masked or not, and the visitors might remain masked for the evening or unmask after dancing. Regardless, as long as they wore their masks, their identity was officially unknown.

In his discussion of court life and etiquette, Il Cortegiano, or The Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione explains that “to be in a maske bringeth with it a certaine libertie and lycence” (Book II, sig. M3). One of these liberties regards dancing. When wearing a mask, you could dance in a way that would be inappropriate were your identity known. The requirement to “preserve a certain dignity” was relaxed, and Castiglione writes that when masked, “it is not displeasing” for good dancers to show off with “agilities of foot and double steps” (Book II, sig. M3).

One could argue that because women’s behavior was more circumscribed in general than men’s, they benefited even more from the social loophole of the mask. In Much Ado About Nothing, the conversation of the women at the dance party is notable. They match the men’s witticisms, and then some. The flirtatious audacity of the female characters in this scene, especially of the usually quiet and obedient Hero, suggests that they, as well as the men, wear masks, but since the text only requires that the male revelers are masked, whether or not the women are also masked is open to interpretation.

– Emily Winerock (July 9, 2019)

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